Having your birthday at a frothy Victorian country house party would seem an ideal opportunity to celebrate, wouldn't it? Because Mary, the daughter of Prime Minister Gladstone, had a November birthday, she often observed it while away from home. This was because the country house season (almost exclusively a British phenomenon) started in the middle of August in the north of Britain (at the beginning of September everywhere else) and lasted until Christmas. During this period, adults who were in Society (those who were presented at court, estate owners and leading intellectuals) travelled between grand houses, sojourning for several days at one mansion before moving to the next.
Today's post is about Mary Gladstone's stay at Ashridge in Great Berkhampstead (northwest of London) with a dozen other people. Here, she turned twenty-three on 23 November 1870, received seven birthday letters from her family and complained to her diary, "I am 23 year[s] old. worse luck. I have done so little." (Add MS 46255, f77, The British Library.) The next day, she wrote a thank you letter to a younger brother (Harry) that reveals something about the nature of Victorian birthdays, birthday letters and country house parties. Rather than having a big party, a cake at dinner, or even a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to You" (the melody had not yet been composed), Mary's letter to Harry shows that she observed her birthday rather quietly. This suggests the private nature of birthdays as a more intimate, family celebration, and the contrastingly more public feeling of a country house party.
Birthday correspondence revealed serious feeling between writer and recipient. Thus Mary writes to eighteen-year-old Harry to acknowledge that beautiful language is part of the value of a birthday letter; she closely attends to and cherishes the letter, appreciating not only the 'good wishes', but also the aesthetic manner in which they are communicated. While it's somewhat unusual to refer to a sibling as 'dear friend', such an expression highlights Mary's depth of feeling at receiving Harry's letter when she's without family on her birthday. Harry is more than a brother; he's a friend, too.
Probably, Mary read Harry's letter during the morning hours when country house guests had a certain amount of freedom for private pursuits. The letter certainly shows the contrast between feelings of the 'momentous' day and the company seeking spicy entertainment. Mary alludes to the latter on the next page when she talks about the 'secret' with which she entices the company:
Can you imagine saucily taunting friends with a secret that has likewise been alluringly held out to you? No one, not even Mary, knows what it is! When you are in company with a dozen acquaintances, such intrigue helps to pass the time. Probably, the secret was that Harry planned to join the London office of his grandfather's company, Gladstone, Wylie & Co (ODNB). As seen on the next page of the letter, because Mary's father was then Prime Minister, and international relations were intense because of the Franco-Prussian war, the group generally thought that Mary had insider's information on foreign policy:
Mentioning 'W. Micawber' shows that Harry's is not the only secret among the seven Gladstone siblings. The jovial and impoverished William Micawber features in Charles Dickens's popular novel, David Copperfield (published 1849-50). Mary would have understood that her brother, Herbert, was indicating his high spirits despite hard times by signing off 'W. Micawber', but the reason for his poverty was unclear.
Letter writing would have most likely occurred in the morning because country house parties followed the same daily schedule everywhere. Such codification must have assisted the smooth functioning of a constantly shifting society, as myriad guests arrived and departed from any one house. In other words, everyone knew what to expect.
Typically, the morning began with a buffet breakfast (although married ladies had their breakfast abed), followed by free time until noon. Then men often joined in a hunting expedition on the country estate. Ashridge was particularly fine in this respect, with 5000 acres landscaped by Capability Brown, which the National Trust has now opened to the public.
The Cornhill Magazine of 1863 tells us that after luncheon, guests were expected to join the lady of the house for a walk, ride or drive. (Inclement weather might result in an indoor game of pool or badminton.) On Mary's birthday, for instance, the afternoon contained an excursion to Mentmore, home of Baron Meyer de Rothschild, where the Ashridge company viewed 'crowds of beautiful things such as I had never seen before - no family at home.' (Mary Gladstone, Diary, Add MS 46255, f 77, The British Library). Additionally, at Ashridge there was an uncommon pursuit for the ladies; it was so unusual that Mary hadn't planned her wardrobe accordingly:
Obviously, our ideas about how to treat animals are rather different today. In the nineteenth century, however, ladies chasing a stag provided exercise and laughter. Likewise, for the gents, shooting stretched the legs, was a competitive sport (tallies were kept), a method of keeping rabbit numbers under control, and a useful supply of fresh game for the kitchen. Tired from such lively pursuits, guests rested or amused themselves from four until dinner, at which time they were expected to appear punctually in formal dress.
Successful parties clearly required particular personnel and personalities: a good cook, a sympathetic and energetic host, and witty conversation during the excursions and lavish dinners. Hosting also required deep pockets. In 1863, the Cornhill Magazine wrote that an income of at least £10,000 a year was required (£8,226,000 in 2015 income value). Smaller incomes meant that fewer people would be invited, 'but everybody gives the same number of dishes for dinner, and champagne each day; everywhere there are carriages to drive people out, keepers in readiness, &c. &c.'
In other words, all pleasures would come to the gathered company. The Cornhill suggested that this made for the very best of society life as opposed to the London Season (roughly February through July). Metropolitan socializing demanded that a lady or gentleman answer notes of invitation, keep appointments and travel to reach entertainments. Of course, arrangements still needed to be made during the house party months, too. Letters helped scattered members of a family to keep track of each other's movements and to plan travel details, including chaperonage for young unmarried daughters. Thus 'by Mama's orders,' the PM wrote to his 'roving daughter', Mary, three days after her birthday in 1870. Foreign Affairs with Russia made Gladstone's own schedule uncertain, he said. But when he could leave London, 'if you were at Ashbridge, I can without difficulty manage the picking up, by morning train'. As we see from her Papa's next sentence, Mary seems to have requested permission to travel next to Wilton House, Salisbury, the home of family friends. 'Beyond this I have nothing to say as I know not anything about any reasons for your going to the Herberts.' (Add MS 46221, f 65, The British Library.)
Whether sorting out practical matters or marking special days, however, communicating with loved ones remained a pleasure no matter where Mary was - just as it does for us today. In fact, thoughtfully marking birthdays through beautifully written sentiments has now become so standard as to be commercialized. I'm thinking of all those birthday cards for sale with a nice picture, pre-printed words and space for a signature and personal message. A lot has changed in the last 145 years in how birthdays are celebrated, but the most basic need on that special day has remained the same: to know that we have been remembered by our nears and dears.
[Letter transcription follows citation information]
Weliver, Phyllis. “Victorian Birthdays at House Parties.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. 25 May 2015. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/5/20/9fp6jh1avyhmb0u7v2ombh3oesom45 ).
Weliver, P. (2015, May 25) Victorian Birthdays at House Parties. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/5/20/9fp6jh1avyhmb0u7v2ombh3oesom45
Transcription of the letter: